Learning Leader

Supporting Vocabulary Growth for English Learners

In the United States, 22 percent of students speak a language other than English at home. In any given school year, about 4.4 million children are officially designated as English language learners, and 80 percent of these students are Spanish-speaking. Many educational programs are experimenting with interventions for this growing population as national trends point to troubling language and reading delays when compared to native English speakers. The National Literacy Panel found that as skills of English learners progress from word-level (e.g. spelling) to more complex text-level skills (e.g. reading comprehension), the gap between proficiency of native English speakers and language-minority speakers significantly widens. Experts believe the disparity in reading performance can be traced to a gap in language proficiency, including vocabulary skills.

It is notoriously difficult among educators to make gains in child vocabulary, particularly with English learners. Research suggests that children need as many as twelve “productive” encounters with one word before it becomes a permanent fixture in their vocabulary. Such encounters are difficult to replicate efficiently in a teacher-student relationship. Even the best curricular materials for language-minority students target about 150-200 English words per year. Contrast this number with the average yearly gains for native English speakers—about 3,000 words per year. In view of these concerns, Dr. María Carlo of the Children’s Learning Institute has set out to identify ways to promote vocabulary development that do not depend upon traditional classroom instruction.

In the early stages of second-language acquisition, bilingual speakers rely on “translating” from separate lexicons, or mental dictionaries. In other words, the language they know often provides the definition for a new word in the language they are learning. This process can range from a deliberate effort to an unconscious task automated by the brain. As the translations between lexicons become more efficient, bilingual speakers essentially stop translating and start accessing a common concept or essence that represents the word in both languages. Dr. Carlo is interested in ways to facilitate this integration across the two lexicons of bilingual students.

In order accomplish this, she first wants to better understand the role word definitions can play in mastering vocabulary. It seems simple: if a word can be defined for students, shouldn’t they then know what the word means? But Dr. Carlo is concerned that the dictionaries we find in classrooms contain definitions too academic and stale, arranged in the formal structure unique to dictionaries, and often filled with unfamiliar words themselves. Consider, for example, these dictionary definitions of a vocabulary word at the fourth grade level:

adjective  pe·cu·liar  \pi-ˈkyül-yər\
1:  characteristic of only one person, group, or thing : distinctive
2:  different from the usual or normal

For a fourth grade English learner, the words characteristic, distinctive, usual, and normal may be as unfamiliar as the original word, peculiar. In contrast, definitions presented informally, with full sentences and an accompanying example, are far more useful to the learner:

adjective  pe·cu·liar  \pi-ˈkyül-yər\
“Peculiar” means something is different from other things.
Example: This apple is a peculiar orange color.   

Moreover, the context in which the definition is referenced can give important clues; an isolated definition is probably less effective for mastering vocabulary than a definition referenced while the student is already primed by the context of an ongoing text or narrative. Lastly, the language of the definition should be considered. Dr. Carlo's work will look at the effectiveness of bilingual dictionaries, particularly if the student has a high proficiency in her home language.

Dr. Carlo’s study, conducted with over 1,000 Spanish-speaking students in Miami-Dade County, is designed to measure the receptive knowledge of academic English words when accounting for access to definition support, context, and current language proficiency. To do this she will develop measures to study vocabulary acquisition performance across various conditions.

Understanding how word meaning can be acquired from single-language or cross-language definitions, as well as by steeping word learning activities in useful contexts, can greatly inform the types of interventions developed for English learners. Dr. Carlo is particularly interested in interventions that put the student in the driver’s seat, enabling her to independently acquire new words and bypass the limitations of formal classroom instruction. It is Dr. Carlo’s hope that the results of this four-year study will help policymakers, educators, and curriculum developers create more efficient interventions for closing vocabulary gaps among a population in tremendous need of high quality resources.

For more on this study, visit the project webpage



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